ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Roger Ditmer isn’t sure but he has inklings as to why God wanted him to walk the American Discovery Trail, a journey that started in 2017 and took him from Delaware to California.
The 1974 Houston High School graduate finished his hike across the United States in September after more than 5,000 miles of walking. He didn’t seek to find anything, or convert anyone, but Ditmer felt compelled by God to make a spiritual journey.
“I was there just to give thanks and acknowledge how blessed I am,” he said.
Even though he didn’t have any experience backpacking, in 2007 Ditmer felt a calling to trek across the United States. Then during some quiet time in 2015, he confirmed his plans to attempt the journey.
Unable to undertake the entire trip all at once because of family and business obligations, Ditmer tackled the American Discovery Trail during the summer months of 2017, 2018 and 2019. He would spend four or five weeks hiking the trail then would return home to St. Simons Island, Georgia.
After completing his responsibilities at home, he’d return to where he left off and continue his hike until he had completed his 5,094 mile journey from Lewes, Delaware, to Point Reyes National Seashore, California.
“I’m just a regular guy that’s done this,” Ditmer, a semi-retired arborist, said. “I’m just thankful that I’ve completed it.”
The American Discovery Trail isn’t one continuous trail across the country. Rather, it’s a collection of more than 200 trails that pass through 15 states. The path crosses a variety of terrains including plains, mountains and deserts.
Ditmer would travel for hundreds of miles at a time without signs to lead the way, instead relying on a Global Positioning System that guided him but did not provide turn-by-turn directions.
“It’s not a walk down the road, that’s for sure in most cases,” said Ditmer, who would hike 15 to 35 miles per day, depending on the terrain.
Ditmer would wake up around 4:30 a.m. each day and start his hike around 5:30 a.m., walking 12 to 14 hours daily. He lost 25 to 30 pounds from his normal weight of 195 pounds while hiking each year.
He met hundreds of people along the way, including some who will be lifelong friends, but there were times he’d go two or three days without seeing anyone. When he did encounter others, he had both good and bad experiences.
Walking on the Buckeye Trail in southern Ohio, Ditmer heard the crunching of gravel behind him. A van with blackened out windows followed him for approximately 20 minutes, remaining 100 to 200 yards behind him until it passed him. As he came around a corner, Ditmer saw four men from the van standing outside a decrepit house trailer.
“I’m realizing that this doesn’t look good,” he said, adding he thinks they planned to rob him.
One of the men yelled at Ditmer, and then they approached him. They came within 8 feet of him and asked what he wanted to talk about. When Ditmer replied that he wanted to talk about Jesus, the men told him to get out of there, and he left.
“Power of prayer,” Ditmer said. “No doubt about it. Thank you, Lord.”
Other experiences were much more positive, such as the time he was passed by a white minivan near Dodge City, Kansas. The van turned around and stopped near Ditmer. A boy, who was in the van with a woman and two other children, ran out of the passenger side door and handed Ditmer two bottles of Pepsi.
“I just said thank you in the name of Jesus,” Ditmer said. “It was amazing that they did that.”
Another instance when Ditmer said he encountered God was while walking near the American River near Sacramento, California. He was extremely thirsty but didn’t want to traverse down to the river, which was approximately 200 feet below his path and would require a trip of three to four hours.
He asked the Lord for help, he said, and a half mile later found a gallon bottle of water sitting on the road, halfway full.
“God showed up at some very interesting times,” he said.
This past summer, Ditmer had a support crew for the first time on his journey to help him traverse through the desolation of Utah, Nevada and California. A friend, Tom Vondenhuevel, Rob Korrow or Todd Hendrix, would meet him at the end of each day to supply him with water.
His roller pack, which he pulled behind him, already weighed 55 to 74 pounds and would have weighed much more had he carried all the necessary water through the desert.
“You can die in this stuff,” said Ditmer, who also had several close encounters with rattlesnakes in the desert. “It’s not for people who are not planning ahead.”
Ditmer would spend the first four hours of each day’s journey walking without music or an audio book to listen to, instead paying attention to what was around him or inside his head. He enjoyed learning about history during his time on the trail but was saddened remembering how Native Americans were treated. His own thoughts also proved challenging at times.
“I doubt very many people would enjoy the intensity of the moment,” he said. “I think a lot of people would struggle with this.
“There’s some days that you are walking through and remembering things you should have done when you were younger or in another stage of life or shouldn’t have done.”
While there were some tough moments, not being plugged in allowed Ditmer to connect with God and appreciate the blessings of his life.
“We had many good conversations,” he said. “Every day was a thank you day, for sure, at some point.”
Ditmer’s journey ended at Limantour Beach, a location near San Francisco where he was greeted by a welcoming party of nine people, including his wife and two of his three daughters.
He was thankful to make it through California before wildfires started to ravage the state and that he completed his journey without any significant injuries.
“In the three years I did not break a bone or twist an ankle,” Ditmer said. “What was the likelihood of this?
“It’s not easy, that’s for sure. I was just very fortunate.”
Ditmer recently was elected to the American Discovery Trail’s board, which is working to promote the trail and also possibly reroute the trail away from dangerous areas.
The Houston High School alumnus took 16,000 photos of his time on the American Discovery Trail and is compiling photo albums. He’s also planning presentations for people in retirement homes and for young men, whom he would like to see outside more instead of being consumed by electronics.
And he’d like everyone to be encouraged and be thankful.
“Bottom line is just being thankful,” Ditmer said. “Operate out of love.”
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-538-4824.